Hong Kong, fantastic, fun, and delicious. We're taking in the city, and it's fabulous harbor, from the window of our suite here at the Peninsula Hotel. The historic Peninsula, with its reputation as the place to see and be seen, its famous afternoon high tea, its fleet of dark green Rolls-Royce cars, and ivory clad page boys, is celebrating its eightieth anniversary. Hong Kong itself is celebrating, the city will be the Olympic venue for the equestrian events in August. As a result, the horse is everywhere here; the Hong Kong Museum of Art is featuring an exhibition; "Story of the Horse", everywhere billboards feature Olympic riders, antique shops have rows of "Tang Dynasty" ceramic horses lining their window displays, it all reflects a general sense of civic pride. The other members of our group are making their way to the mainland on a commercial flight for more tours and hectic travel around China, we've opted to stay here, and spend a relaxing few days enjoying this great city, and this wonderful hotel.
What better way to experience a little Chinese culture here in Hong Kong, than to eat it in small bites; dim sum! Those wonderful, tasty, mini treats of goodness- those treasures that arrive in tiny bamboo steamer baskets; oh yea, you guessed it; cooking class! Art and I have had wonderful classes on this trip, from Art's French cooking class in Paris, our great experience in Thailand with Chef Patik and in Vietnam with Chef Hwah, and now we've had an amazing morning working side by side with master dim sum Chef Lee, the head dim sum chef here at the Peninsula, and widely considered to be the finest dim sum chef in all of Hong Kong. If anyone has ever watched those travel food shows and thought it would be neat to see these folks working up close- your right- it's so much more impressive in person. Chef Lee is typical of Chinese chefs in that he is a specialist. Thirty years spent as a professional chef, his family has been making dim sum for several generations, Chef Lee learned from his father who learned from his and so-on. dim sum is so much more than a cooking technique, much more than just a dumpling, dim sum is a traditional cooking art form.
The word "dim sum"means, "to touch the heart", and is a Cantonese tradition that is always served with tea- "yum cha". Art and I learned two foundation styles of making dim sum but there are many varieties. In a busy dim sum house, as many as a thousand hungry lunch hour patrons will gobble up an average of seven pieces of dim sum each- that's a lot of dim sum! All of the pieces are made fresh to order. The average dim sum kitchen is organized chaos according to Chef Lee- very hard work. The chefs work at blinding speed to prepare these beautiful and delicate treats. To look at the detail and care that goes into making each piece is amazing considering that after all of that effort, the dim sum will be gone in one bite. The tradition of [yum cha])http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yum_cha) (drinking tea) is synonymous with eating dim sum. Art and I really enjoyed learning the traditional Chinese style of brewing and serving tea. It's quite different from how we've normally made tea. The Chinese like to brew tea very quickly in a tiny pot that serves only one or two people. Each cup of tea is poured from an individual infusion. The first infusion may only last thirty seconds, then a second infusion lasting a minute. With each additional infusion, (as many as seven) the character of the tea, as well as the flavor changes. Our biggest surprise was to see that using this technique, after multiple infusions, the tea did not grow bitter or become weak but actually grew stronger in flavor with a more robust taste. We also found, that like a fine wine, tea can also be aged. Fermentation is a common process when producing fine teas- it's how black tea becomes black. Here in Hong Kong, they have teas that have been fermented and aged for several years- five, fifteen, even up to eighty or one hundred years. We sampled some eighteen year old Pu-erh tea and found it to be quite soothing and wonderful. After our dim sum class, we had a great time eating up our efforts while enjoying fine tea.
We'd had a super day at our cooking class, Art and I were back in our room when we received the news that the rest of our group were all still stuck at the airport. They didn't have the correct visas and were denied entry into mainland China. They had managed to get as far as the boarding gate but then were suddenly turned back. Of course originally, we had all planned to fly ourselves from Hong Kong over to Beijing and a few other stops inside China. After months of negotiations, we were all ultimately denied permits to fly our airplanes into Chinese airspace but ironically had no trouble getting permission for landing here in Hong Kong. Under the one country two governments system that divides Hong Kong from mainland China, a person can enter Hong Kong but must still have an additional visa to enter China proper. The visas we had all obtained were flight crew visas- not tourist visas. In many ways the Chinese are even more particular about their bureaucracy than the Indians. At any rate, we're really pleased we decided to skip mainland China and stay for a week at the Penninsula instead. Unfortunately for the other folks, the Penninsula is booked solid at the moment so the rest of our group are down the street at the "Kowloon Shangri-La".
Saturday night in Hong Kong- clubbing? A show? A helicopter trip over to Macau? Any of those things would be fun to do but we've really enjoyed the down time here. Our idea of a great Saturday night in Hong Kong was to order up some room service and a stack of Bruce Lee DVD's and just hang out here at the Peninsula. Bruce was a Hong Kong native, and is revered here as one of this cities' favorite sons. A large bronze statue of the Kung Fu master is a popular feature along the Victoria Harbor walk of fame. After our big night out, Art and I were having coffee and reading the local paper. There was a big kick-boxing tournament here Saturday and last night the winning team was out celebrating in a local bar when a gang of thugs decided to break up the party- thirty of them against six Kung Fu. In true Enter the Dragon style, the Kung Fu fighters handily defeated all thirty of the bottle wielding street gangsters. Not to be out done, even more gangsters returned to the bar with reinforcements only to be repelled again. Eight of the gangsters went to the hospital with serious injuries while all of the Kung Fu fighters emerged unscathed- Bruce would be proud.
Our week here in Hong Kong has been wonderful, we've enjoyed the beauty of the night skyline and it's choreographed laser light show, we bubbled in the Peninsula's Spa hot tub overlooking the harbor, we had fun shopping the fantastic, sleek, modern malls as well as the back street shops. The custom tailoring shops are everywhere here, they advertise "Silk and Cashmere Suits made in seven hours", while another storefront barker called out; "We have only the finest quality designer handbag copies". We explored the neighborhoods, temples and parks, they even have beaches here- who knew? We took a boat tour of Victoria Harbor on the "Green Ferry"- this ferry service has been operating for over one hundred years. We saw the famed Happy Valley race course, the most uneven, wavy, oddly shaped, and difficult, horse racing track I've ever seen. It's built on top of an ancient mass grave from a malaria outbreak and used to be known locally as; "Death Valley", The British changed it to "Happy Valley", and built the track. But above all else during our visit to Hong Kong, we've enjoyed the food. Hong Kong is one of the great food cities of the world; right up there with New York, or Paris.
Good Chinese food has all but disappeared in the US. As a kid growing up in Sarasota, Florida, our favorite family restaurant was The Golden Buddha, a family owned Chinese wonderland of fantastic exotic tastiness (unfortunately closed now for many years). The menu was extensive and included specialty dishes like Peking Duck and bird's nest soup. It's amazingly rare to find a real Chinese restaurant in the States today. They seem to have been taken over by some terrible conspiracy to turn them all into cheap buffet style slop houses. As a result, the reputation of fine quality Chinese cuisine in the US has disappeared also. Once In Hong Kong, however, the food possibilities are truly endless. If it's considered food somewhere on this planet, chances are, you can find it here. Of course Art and I have been going out for great Chinese nearly every chance we get. I'd forgotten how wonderful fine Chinese food really is. The food here in Hong Kong is simply beyond any expectation a person could have- in a word; marvelous. There is great food all over town, but the very best chefs work in the better hotels. We tried our own Chinese restaurant here at the Peninsula, Spring Moon- so fantastic we've eaten there several times. We went over to the Mandarin Oriental's, Man Wah, which was also fantastic, as well as, Lung King Heen over at the Four Seasons where the spectacular harbor view nearly rivals the food.
I seldom use the word "delicacy", it seems to conjure up images of snooty people bragging about eating weird things that really taste nasty. When speaking of our food experience here in Hong Kong, however, delicacy really does apply; in the food as well as the experience of dining. There is a remarkable attention to tiny details here that we've never seen anywhere else- the proper way of going about each and every nuance of the meal is never deviated from. We were introduced to the Chinese version of the formal table setting and the almost ritualized process of serving the meal. A hot towel before each course, numerous staff all with specific jobs, and a sense of pride in one's restaurant that is more like a sports team. Sauces, and their secret ingredients, for example, hold a special significance. Here in Hong Kong, most restaurants like to serve a specialized spicy condiment called, XO Sauce. It's made from dried shrimps, chilies, and other secret stuff. Each restaurant has their own version and each is highly secretive about how they make it. When the folks over at the Mandarin found out we were staying at the Peninsula, they wanted to know all about our hotel's "XO" and how it stacked up to theirs- same with the staff at Four Seasons.
It's been a fantastic journey so far but flying yourself around the world is difficult, tedious, and can just plain wear you out. Having a full week to catch up and cool down from the daily grind of flight planning, bureaucratic paperwork, loading and unloading, packing and repacking, waiting hours for fuel or a clearance on a one hundred and ten degree ramp, and the tensions that go with all of it- Hong Kong has been an oasis. From here we fly on to Taiwan, Korea, and Russia. Alaska is still weeks away- we feel rested and ready to take on these final challenges. We've summited Everest, now we must make our way back down the mountain safely.